Thursday, January 5, 2012

Music: Live, Recorded & In Between

I saw a huge variety of live performances this year. From the Vera

to the Showbox

and the Festivals, with a very nice Space Needle callout in the RunDown by Sol:

not to mention bars - and sometimes the bars were at Festivals, or is that sometimes the Festivals were in the bars?

Lots and lots of shows, almost 400 for the year.

I watched the EMP Nirvana 20 year anniversary fund raiser for Suzie Tenant "streamed live" over the internet. So I was watching their live performances, but I was sitting at home watching my computer screen. It was fun and interesting but not nearly as fun as actually being there - tinny speakers rather than a loud well tuned PA, small view port into the performance rather than being 5' to 10' from the performers, the whole process has much less impact for the "streamed live" especially since I'm running it all on my laptop. If you had a large screen TV or better still a projection based system that improves the visual effect. A good stereo setup would also make a huge difference. I saw the performances in very near real time and the sound was quite reasonable so I could hear what they were doing better than I could see it. That was the only show I live blogged, yet it was also arguably the only show I didn't see live. Live blogged a non-live show, how interesting.

Music changed fundamentally last century. In 1900 you heard live music or no music at all. Social gatherings frequently involved music and singing, so not being able to sing or play anything was a bit of a social handicap, and being a good singer or musician meant employment, and it probably got you invited to the best parties too. In order to have music you either had to employ musicians, or play it yourself. A few well off people had player pianos so there was a tiny bit of prerecorded music available, but it was just a niche.

Magnetic wire recording then reel to reel recording changed things fundamentally. Musicians unions opposed the whole concept. Union opposition led to black men (who weren't allowed in the unions) getting recorded early - Leadbelly and Robert Johnson recordings from the thirties are the earliest recordings I've ever listened too.

It took a few decades, but most people listen to prerecorded music most of the time now. Live performances are infrequent for most, they take money and effort, most people listen to hours of prerecorded music daily and live music for a couple hours a month at best. Occasionally you listen to a recording of a live performance.

Even a live performance nowadays can be largely automated, from the Rice Baker-Yeboah show where he sang against tracks off his Mac to pervasive drum machine and MIDI playback.

Santana plays his guitar in this wailing intensely personal way that feels so organic yet relies on the amplifier feedback loop (magnetic input from strings to amplifier to speakers to strings, repeat) for it's characteristic sustain and tone.

The most intense immediate live playing could only be heard by a very small crowd if we didn't have amplifiers and PAs.

I worked with Trimpin on the If VI Were IX: Roots and Branches installation where we took the MIDI code and played it on stringed instruments in real time. We put together robotic guitar and basses, one string per device with pluckers and frettles.
Pluckers use a motor driving a shaft with a pick two mounted on it to pluck the string. Given the setup, every pluck from top to bottom is always followed by a bottom to top pluck. It can only go back and forth by plucking across the string. Any "note on" for the current channel in the correct range (channel and range can be set via bits on a DIP switch, or hard wired in at programming time if desired) causes a pluck. The "louder/faster" the note on the higher duty cycle we use to drive the plucker's DC sevo-motor. Once we get past the 60% point (the pluck is complete) we go into a hunt for the end point mode and servo to a stop.
Frettles are solenoids driving felt pads against the guitar fret board. By putting one string on each robot Trimpin keeps the frettle design simple. In the EMP exhibit he put 12 frettles per string, allowing a full octave of notes above the open note, so the open note can be repeated an octave up.
As I tweaked the algorithm that controlled the position of the shaft that plucked the string I almost had it right. It had a bit of instability in the termination routine: I'd shut down the system too soon and the last bit of motion would put the pluck just a bit further or nearer to the next "pluck" point. That caused the next pluck to not quite perfectly reflect the volume/speed setting from the note-on command: we'd set the requested value, but there was an additional random factor on top of that. I started to dig into the problem and Trimpin said "No, don't change that; it gives it an organic feel, less like a machine." The robot guitar sounded a bit better if it's careful mechanical precision had an overlying hint of randomness, giving it an almost ragged feel when playing almost-too-fast music. The system could handle pretty brisk banjo music, but if you start speeding it up the system starts missing notes when it approaches inhumanely fast by a factor of 3 or 4.

Samples take recording and slice and dice them into new material. Remixes take whole productions and re-purpose them.
Our robots and recordings and replays and re-recordings and remixes and streamed live and streamed recorded in the end still mostly needs a beat and better still a groove to succeed. Sometimes music is a soundtrack - what you're playing in the background. Sometimes you'e listening to music directly and it has more impact. Live music and a crowd amp that impact way up. A good beat or groove gets the crowd going and the band can feed off of the crowd's energy and sometimes performances feel transcendent, sending goose bumps down my spine through sheer beauty and power. I live for those moments!

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